A Thick Skin and A Job You Can Stand
Although I had been reading books since I was nine years old, trying to write a story or poem myself had never occurred to me until I was eighteen years old and a young friend named Susan suggested I try. For some reason, a solid D- all through high school did not seem a barrier to this idea.
I grew up in far western Minnesota, the oldest kid in a farm family. We were renters, which often meant moving from farm to farm as ownership of the land changed. If my count is right, we had five different moves. Sometimes finding a place was not easy. We had two short stays in the small town of Morris, Minnesota, waiting for a farm place to turn up. And once, when I was eight or nine, our little family of two parents and four kids made a trip in a small Chevy car to Los Angeles, California, to find work. My father could do anything to make machines work, but the dirt of Minnesota was stuck to our boots and the prairie wind seemed to be calling us back all through the L.A. nights. My father had two sisters and a brother living there (the reason we went there), so we said goodbye and knew we were going back to even more uncertainty and wild farmsteads miles from even small towns, where the weather was tough and a hard living the only kind to be had, and we were happy.
Back on the farm, the third I had lived on, it didn't come easily. We had to live in town for maybe a year, I'm not sure, where I was running wild, overcome with boredom and not enough hard work to do. The farm turned up just in time to keep me from kid prison. I wasn't mean, just restless.
The farm was twenty-five miles from just about anywhere. Our nearest neighbors were two miles away, more or less, and they were few. I had to ride the school bus to the tiny prairie town of Alberta, the first one on and the last off, with my little sister. I had chores morning and night, helping with milking, feeding pigs, chickens, and steers. I was eleven, turning twelve, and for some reason always loved farm work. We had no indoor plumbing, so it was my job to haul drinking water to the house from the windmill pump in a bucket. Water for washing came from a cistern by the farmhouse through a pipe to the hand pump in the kitchen. We had no central heating, just a small oil stove in the living room. We did have a wood burning stove for heating the big farm kitchen, and my other enjoyable house job was chopping and carrying wood in from the stand of trees, planted originally to claim the land, that did its best to shelter the farm buildings from the winter storms. And I truly did love the work. I suppose it was because it made me feel that what I was doing was important to our survival, even though I don't remember ever thinking much about it.
I was given a puppy, a collie mix for me to raise, and to keep me company because my siblings were so much younger than I. And he was a great companion. He saved my life for the first time when he was not yet three months old. We had just a few days earlier brought him home from a neighbor's farm, where we had paid five dollars for him. Boots (by name already, because of his four white feet) and I ran out to the far pasture to bring in the cows for evening milking. It was a sunny autumn late afternoon, cool air still as piled gold. Boots ran with me under my feet. He thought it great fun! I did too. The cows saw me and started to come, knowing they would get more food in the barn as they were being milked. All but one: A young cow with horns and a bad disposition. That afternoon she decided to use her horns on me while I was a long way from the fence, my only means of escape. I had forgotten my heavy hand-made staff and at eleven, almost twelve, I was not big enough to impress many animals. I don't mind saying I was a mite worried until a little golden ball of puppy ran yelping and growling (in a high-pitched way) straight at the evil beast. She could not nail him with her horns, though she surely tried. Even so, young Boots was faster. I made it to the fence and found a stout stick, but by that time the Bad One was jogging after the other cows and with Boots at her heels yet!
Later that fall, when I turned 12, I was allowed to go hunting by myself and was quite joyous about it. And the fact that I could occasionally add a pheasant or duck to our family meals was a satisfying thing.
School was the only drawback. The good things were some other farm kid friends and Marie Olson, a strict English teacher that I had in both seventh and eighth grade. She was also the school librarian and she knew of my love for reading books, so when my grades moved somewhere toward the middle letters of the alphabet, she just made sure I had all the library books I could carry when I went home after school. Years later, when my first little book of poems came out, she was happier than I was.
In high school, I was in a different small town (we had changed farms again). Another English teacher, this time a guy, Dave Wilson, gave me that bemused English teacher look when I was flunking his class but reading books by the hundred-weight. After looking at some of the books I was reading in study hall one day he said, with contempt, "Why do you read such junk?" A lot was, but not all--I hadn't had much guidance since Marie Olson. I asked Mr. Wilson to tell me what was good. He did. He also said that I might pass his English class if I went out for track. I did, and I did. (He was the long-distance coach.) Two kind teachers.
When I was twenty, I met Robert Bly. At the time he lived in western Minnesota, 50 miles from where I grew up. One sunny May Sunday afternoon, a friend and I drove south to see if we could find him. We had been told he was a real, live poet and that he lived in Minnesota! Not France, not New York, or other far off poet places! By now I had written many bad poems and did not know much about anything literary but wanted to see a poet. We were told that Bly lived in a tree house a few miles out of town. That did not seem unlikely to us--for a poet. When we found the farm we saw with some disappointment only a farm house and other farm buildings, and a flag pole with a U. S. flag above a Norwegian flag, both waving happily in the warm spring wind. That was some consolation. Uninvited as we were, we were nevertheless welcomed enthusiastically by both Robert and Carol, and offered food and yak dung tea (that is what Robert called it, but by this time, after the "tree house," I was doubtful). Later in the afternoon, James Wright, who had been napping in the chicken coop/writing shack, came into the house and made the afternoon as complete as could be. We were overwhelmed in a wonderful way by all the talk of poems and poets and the humor and the literary gossip. In the evening, we left with our hands full of books given to read and to keep. Our heads were full of poetry, and we now knew real live poets could be anywhere.
During the years from 1960, until I became married in 1965, I drifted back and forth between the west coast and Minnesota. I left the farm because there was not enough land for another grown person to make a living on. When in Minnesota I did help out with farm work that needed hands during busy times. My travels were to see different country, and I just followed my restless feet. It was on one of my returns to the prairie that I met Robert Bly on that Sunday trip. After that I was off again to California and points in between. It was a solitary time, for I almost always traveled alone. That way I could poke around as fast or slowly as I felt like. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I first fell in love with the yellow pine tree. One day in June, high up, I came on a grove of them standing knee deep in snow, with the breeze blowing through their needles summer warm and the sun almost hot.
The work I found kept me in food and traveling money so I could see the country and think, and sometimes write something down once in a while. It was not much. But the landscape of certain parts of the west got into my thoughts and has not left. Mostly it is the barren places where the hills rise suddenly out of the plains toward the sky, maybe only a mile or so up before they stop. And on those high places are my yellow pines. Even so, every autumn I returned to Minnesota because I could not bear to miss pheasant hunting season. On the farm they knew I would be back to help with the fall corn picking. And I always stayed the winter because of the snow and the storms that I have always liked so much. And all the change of one season to another, almost as if moving to new country. Winter solitude cannot be beaten for calming the restless wanderer. The first poem I kept was a little one I wrote one November day in 1963:
It's winter now and almost night,
The grass of the earth is dead.
My windowsill has been put in crooked
So that I am chilled by air
Dark and cold.
Outside I can see no one,
And the last of the sunlight is being hunted down
By something frozen.
The next spring, Jim Wright was in Morris to speak to a class at the college (a friend of his was the teacher), and Jim and I had coffee later and I got up nerve enough to show him the poem. He was so generous in his words about it that I could only blush and stammer. I still feel that way.
Also, during this time I was sending poems to Robert Bly at his invitation. He would go through them, thankfully short poems of maybe eight lines. He would cross out all but one or two of the lines and send the poem back. He always said something so encouraging about the two lines left that I felt wonderful for two days. It was a good way to learn. I would study the poems until I could see the bad or silliness in the crossed out lines and what might be good or true in the ones that were left. Also, he said read everything you can in every field, not just literature. That helps too, I think. I still try to do that. But at the time I mostly studied poets to see what made a good poem, from Francois Villon to the Chinese poets and all in between. And I have never tired of that, but I also still read books on everything. How much I understand, is another thing.
Between the years 1965 and 1971, I got married, fathered two children, and learned both letterpress and offset printing. I worked in a letterpress "job shop" (and newspaper) in a small town, just as letterpress printing using lead type was becoming obsolete, so I and decided to give offset a try. It was not as interesting or as hard physically as letterpress, but I enjoyed learning it. Being farm taught, I was pretty good with machines, to a point. But offset printing was destined to be replaced by a great meteor storm of computers from outer space. By 1971, I had lost my offset job, not to computers, but to an old-fashioned firing by the boss. It turned out to be a favor. I no longer had to work under a roof! And to keep it that way, I found work with a retired farmer who was hired by the county to do repair of town halls scattered over the countryside. (The town halls were old one-room schoolhouses.) The crew was Albert Goldenstien and me. He was probably about seventy years old, thin and stringy, the stringy all muscle, weather beaten brown face and hands, eyes squinty from the sun. He looked at the world with a small skeptical smile. We were left alone, mostly. Once in a while, if a supervisor came by with a suggestion, Albert would listen and when he left, Albert would say, "We'll do it our way. If they don't like it, they can only kill us once." And he would laugh and enjoy himself by thinking about it all day. Of course, Albert's way was the best. Those old-time farmers could do just about anything. I learned some things useful for writing poetry from Albert and his talk and stories. Be short and have a point. And sometimes maybe ramble a little. If it doesn't get done today, it will get done tomorrow. A thick skin is a handy thing to have. Tell the truth and do things the best way you know how. After that, don't worry. They can only kill you once.
During these same three years before I started working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), I had time to help Jim Gremmels, an English teacher at the little college in Morris to set up a small letterpress in the basement of a campus building. He was the same teacher that mentioned that Robert Bly lived in a tree house. He still enjoyed thinking about that. I taught him what I knew about lead type printing, the most important being to keep your hand out of the press when its jaws were closing. Those old hand-fed platen presses had made more than one one-handed printer. My daughter often was with me in the little print shop and could set type by the time she was five or six. My son was too young at the time or I suppose I would have continued to break the child labor laws with him, too. Jim Gremmels' printing set-up became Prairie Gate Press, and went on to print and publish booklets and small books in limited editions and with the fine look and feel when you hold it in your hand that only letterpress printing can give.
During the first half of the seventies, along with other things, I became the part-time printer for the Minnesota Writer's Publishing House that Robert Bly and a group of Minnesota poets founded. I set up a small offset press in the basement of the house my family lived in and put the bunch of us to work. My wife kept order, and the two children assembled the books, with some help, and as long as they felt in the mood. I promise you I did not force them to do it. They thought it was fun, to a point. As my DNR job got going, I found I was doing too much. After printing the first few books I had to quit the printing business.
Another part of that time was meeting a few poets. In 1973 in early spring, Thomas McGrath came to Morris to read. The next day, before he left town the two of us went to the small municipal bar in the late morning to talk. It was a pretty day full of sunshine and singing birds, and the two of us were alone in the bar. We did little drinking but talked of the writing life. Tom did most of the talking in a quiet way. He talked of being a farm kid in North Dakota, leaving, working on the west coast, finding work where he could, writing when he could. He told me everything was a fit subject for poetry, and it seems he may have also said: easier said than done and easier done than done well. It's been a long time. But I know he said get a job you can stand and write. If you are serious, that is what you must do. I didn't know him well, but when I think of him, I remember a gentleman.
Early one morning, Robert Bly called me from his farm 50 miles south of Morris to ask if I could give Donald Hall and his wife a ride to the airport in Sioux Fall, South Dakota. I was not working for the DNR yet, so I could. They were eating breakfast when I got there and offered me some too. I remember being served a soft-boiled egg in an eggcup with its shell on and not having the slightest idea what to do with it. Someone showed me how to knock the top off with a butter knife with a quick short swing. Sort of like swatting the hat off of someone walking in front of you for fun. This was also a spring day and Donald Hall was telling his wife about the prairie, so green now, would by fall turn yellow and brown. We talked some of writing, of jobs, poets trying to survive as poets, a never-ending subject. It was another pleasant day.
Just one more story of meeting a poet that would never have happened without Robert being so considerate. This was an after work call in 1973, I remember it was the day Ezra Pound died because I recall Robert talking about it with Tomas Transtromer, how he, Robert, had been called by CBS radio to comment on Pound. How Robert thought they expected him to be critical of Pound, but Robert praised him instead. Robert had called me to come down to the farm and ride with him and Transtromer, the wonderful Swedish poet, to a college in Marshall, Minnesota, where Robert and he were to read that evening. So I did, of course. I rode in the back and spent the ride to and from the reading leaning forward to hear what they were talking about. I was pretty shy and intimidated around real poets. I considered my writing inexperienced and my knowledge not much.
In the spring of 1974 I was hired by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. There was a small DNR wildlife office of only one full-time person and that was the game manager who hired me. It was good fortune for me. He was friendly and kind and smart. He was the sort of boss who said what needed to be done and let you do it expecting that it would be done right. He was a biologist, and I learned a lot from him to add to what I knew about animals from my farm raising. I was a laborer and my work was much the same as farm work would be. Planting, weeding, fence building, cutting trees, spraying thistle and so on. But there were hunts to help monitor, beaver dams to help blow up (the beaver could rebuild them in a week). The best thing was just being outside and doing the kind of work I like best. I worked there for sixteen years.
Meanwhile, I kept writing. We had a house in town and whenever Robert Bly went through on his way to a cabin he stayed at up north in the woods, he would almost always stop on the way back to visit. He would call out, "Show me some poems!" I usually had three or four of doubtful worth, and most he would leave in pieces, but always found a line or an image he liked. Then he would get to the serious business of finding out what new critter my children had added to the menagerie that had the run of house, what had been brought from the field behind the back yard. We had the usual dogs and cats, but also turtles, salamanders, crawfish, lizards (through the mail), stray birds, garter snakes, and, of course, frogs (a certain two were the models for the cover art on one of my books, captured by my son, and drawn by my young daughter). I am sure I have missed some. But it all was a delight to Robert, and to the kids, who couldn't wait to show him the animals that had been added since his last visit.
By the end of the seventies things were changing. My work took me away in more solitude. I saw less of poets. Robert was doing other things. I still saw him and other poet friends now and then. But seldom. I began to keep notebooks when my DNR job started, and I spent a lot of time in the evenings writing things down. Except from my family, I became even more solitary than ever. Once again, as it was on the farm, all my waking hours were spent outside all year round. When I was laid off because of the seasonal nature of the work, I hunted or skied or did temporary outdoor jobs, if I could find them. The writing I did was mostly in the evenings, with an afternoon here or there. One day in 1981, impatient for spring I wrote:
Crawling Out The Window
When spring comes on the continental divide the snowbanks are broken in two and half fall south and half fall north. It's the Gulf of Mexico or Hudson Bay, one or the other, for the snow, the dirt, the grass, the animals and me. The Minnesota prairie has never heard of free will. Accept your fate. Love your fate. If you fall south life will be easy, like warm rain. You wake up with an out-going personality and a knack for business. The river carries you. You float easily and are a good swimmer. But if you fall north while daydreaming you never quite get your footing back again. You will spend most of your time looking toward yourself and see nothing but holes. There will be gaps in your memory and you won't be able to earn a living. You always point north like a compass. You always have to travel on foot against the wind. You always think things might get better. You watch the geese and are sure you can fly.
Prose poems were a new thing for me and seemed a way to say more in a less concentrated way, if that makes sense, than a line poem that is meant, I think, to make you consider each line as a place to stop for a minute, a creature by itself. I may be wrong about all this. Just write the poem, Reginald. Each style does a different thing.
With my kids out of high school and off doing other things, I decided to find out about trees. As a prairie native, I did not know the deep woods. The yellow pine I knew pretty well, but the deep woods, the dark woods, the woods of strange noises in the night, I did not know. So I went up north to Ely, Minnesota, where the road dead-ends against the forest wall. I took some forestry and wildlife classes at the local tech school. I hunted and fished the woods and lakes. I got lost at dusk on a wooded hill with a floating bog in its middle while grouse hunting. I got out with wet boots and a new found love for a good compass and the ability to know how to use it.
I spent four winters in the north, one in a stone cabin at a trail's end, the others in Ely when I could not afford a cabin. But being out in the woods was my job. I'm still considering what I learned. There is no doubt it is the prairie that I know, but the woods have helped to realize that better. My forestry teacher and friend, Ron Person, left the north woods for the southwest mountains into which he has disappeared, but not lost. I can see him now, long and lanky moving through the high country.
In 1992, I went to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. I was hired as a wildlife biological technician, which may have been stretching a point, but my sixteen years with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources made up for lack of schooling. The work I did at the refuge was mostly the same as with the DNR, but I was also allowed and expected to do some biological jobs. The refuge is in the middle of the prairie pothole region, which is also called the duck factory of North America. I helped with spring nest counts and late summer duck banding, did a lot of weed spraying, mostly Canada thistle, although it seems to me that a Canadian friend might have called it American thistle. My other big job was repairing old barbed wire fencing, as well as building new, a job I had learned how to do when I was a twelve-year old farm kid. It was a job I have always liked, oddly enough.
The refuge is long and narrow with the north end close to the North Dakota border. The James River runs through it. Besides the refuge, we also managed parcels of U.S. wildlife land west of us as far as the Missouri River. So I got to compare South Dakota prairie to the Minnesota brand. It is drier generally in South Dakota. The mid-grass prairie starts there, and the trees are even fewer than on the Minnesota grassland. West of the refuge the Leola Hills start, pretty much the beginning of the rolling hills of the Missouri Coteau, that roll with grass as the wind sweeps them clean of everything except the scent of wild flowers. As you drive through them, you dip and turn as the land does, and in places it is so empty that if, in two or three hours you meet one or two other cars, you wonder where all the people came from.
As with the DNR, I was lucky again and had fallen in with good people to work with and for. It is interesting how many biologists like poetry. I left the job at the end of the 1999 work season, which was usually the end of October or early November, the same as farm field work ends. Because of a head injury in the early 1990s that messed up my balance system for good, my bosses were worried I might fall off a tractor while working alone in the middle of nowhere, 50 or 75 miles from the refuge, where I might not be found for a day or two. They thought it better that I retire. I was not worried about getting hurt, not ever having much sense, but I could see their point. The good part of it all is that I have been able to pay more attention to my children and grandchildren, though some at long-distance.
Most of us probably see poems not long after we open our eyes. Where do they go? You can tell it in the way babies are amazed by everything they see. I first noticed this with my own children, and was reminded of it again when I became a grandfather. Even baby animals are sweetly curious. A good poem should amaze, and the earth is a good poem. But then, what is not amazing about it all? The rain, the snow, the wind that sings, and sometimes roars like a devouring lion.
Words should make the world clearer. Wherever in the world good poems come from, you will see that sharp clearness in them. Each word will standout alone like a bare tree on a hill in winter, black against the sky.
Sometimes after I have written a poem in my notebook when I come back to do some revising, it won't budge. It's too stubborn to move and ignores me completely. I love revising. I grew up working with stubborn animals, and I loved working with them, too. I just make sure they can't wander off and leave them alone. You don't have to feed poems in the same way you do animals, so you can stay away a long time. A year or more. Their food is silence and solitude, I think. I have come back to find that a poem has written itself while I was away. I suppose for some reason I was blind to it before, and it was a poem all along, but I'm not really sure.
When I was a kid on the farm, after a hard summer rain, my father would pull on his four-buckle overshoes and go for a long walk down the dirt field road, made mud from the rain. He would say he wanted to check the back 80 to see if the creek was flooded or if the wheat had been beaten down by the rain. I'm sure that he wanted to check the creek and the crops. But I'm also sure that when he was a half-mile from the house, he stopped, took a deep breath of the newly washed air, and almost smiled. All the countryside was luminous with after rain light. He was still looking at the fields, but he was finding poetry.
As Jim Harrison said, poetry is a serious thing. Solzhenitsyn said, "For the writer intent on truth, Life never was, never is (and never will be!), easy: his like have suffered every imaginable harassment---defamation, duels, a shattered family life, financial ruin or lifelong unrelieved poverty, the madhouse, jail. While those who wanted for nothing, like Lev Tolstoy, have suffered worse torments in the claws of conscience."
Poetry is a mystery, as is almost everything. It seems to be in the very ground where we live. How much poetry has been built over? How much plowed over? But it's still there, waiting. And not even silently. The grass grows through the cement. Lightning strikes where it pleases.
Meanwhile, I've found a piece of country only four or five hundred miles west of here where the land suddenly rises a mile high and is covered with yellow pine with very little understory, so that the sunlight falls to the ground between the tree trunks and a piney breeze blows the soft grass to and fro. Near a fallen log a rattlesnake uncurls just in case we have forgotten about tornadoes and snowstorms, to remind us that nature means business. And that danger is its greatest charm.
Copyright 2016 by Tom Hennen
Limbless from industrial accidents
Huddle on the outskirts of the city.
The swamp has become a supermarket overnight.
A heron with no business sense
The hungry man from the woods
Feeds on loose change
Like a parking meter.
The smokestacks sink into the ground.
Underground the soot changes hands.
The night shift moves slowly
Emitting a dim light from their mole eyes.
An odor of small lakes
Survives in the clothing of insects.
Picking a World
Includes airplanes and power plants,
All the machinery that surrounds us,
The metallic odor that has entered words.
The other world waits
In the cold rain
That soaks the hours one by one
All through the night
When the woods come so close
You can hear them breathing like wet dogs.
June, with Loons
Heat heavy as an overcoat by mid-morning,
The scent of pine thick as mud.
Two loons call loudly close to shore.
They sound deeply disturbed,
Which means everything is fine.
The sky a deep pretty blue,
That selfish young blue
That will not let even one small cloud
Anywhere near it.
Because of its beauty, we don't care.
The lake, as usual,
Has taken its mood from the sky,
Its color also,
The blue that breaks hearts.
Light falls out of the summer day
Onto the surface of the water,
Delicate and silent,
Perhaps as rain falls in a different world
Or at the other window,
The one we are not looking out of.
The Ants, a Feeble People
Those fall days are best when the afternoons warm up enough to take the edge off, and my ragged work jacket is too heavy, but I leave it on anyway. In the old gravel pit I take a break from cutting wood. Aspen and cottonwood have grown up since the pit was abandoned. Some have become real trees and show their age with broken limbs and lightning scars. Under the shivering yellow leaves there is a large ant mound with only a few big ants on it. They have sealed it against the coming winter and now make one last check for open holes. I cannot see how they will be able to get back in. I wonder if they have sacrificed themselves for the others. They are calm. When they stop to rest, the sunlight seems to give them pleasure. I sit beside them for a long time while we feel sorry for the ones safely inside.
What the Bees Found
Sunshine dries the dew. The prairie springs thick green. Soft in the ravines, low and lush in the new grain, tough and wild in the river bottom. Wind and sun move over it all in waves of fresh light. June is the month of ease on the prairie. Plants grow without pause. Every creek runs with fast water. All who live here were born rich.
One at a time the sheep are let to pasture like fair-weather clouds. Warm birds jump from twig to nest to ground. They sing their songs without flaw. Not a cue is missed. The notes carry out over the patches of wheat and flax where they come apart and fall, quick showers on the new fields.
Large bees drift sideways from flower to flower. The bumblebee has a round body the color of candy, lovely enough to kiss. When I made that mistake my grandfather gave me a heaped bowl of raspberries, with sugar and cream, and while I wept great tears I ate them all.
Older now, I notice that the hours must pass even as do pretty flowers. Left behind is a field with bits of time bending in the wind, each one checked for nectar by a thoughtful bee that will dance a map in the air to remind me where a lost day can be found. Then I will feel a sudden sting for neglecting the search for what is most sweet.
Credit: Tom Hennen, "Winter Twilight," "Crawling Out the Window," "Minneapolis," "Picking a World," "June, with Loons," "The Ants, a Feeble People," "What the Bees Found" from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems. Copyright 2013 by Tom Hennen. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.
When I introduce my literature course’s Final Essay – a reflective writing assignment – I ask students to consider the meaning of “reflection.” A reflection is a pause: it involves turning to look back, and to reconsider something thought or done in the past from the perspective of the present.
The Final Essay assignment asks students to integrate scene and reflection to demonstrate their most important learning from the semester. Students must address two distinct areas of thought: content knowledge and self-knowledge. Our class theme is “Human, Animal, Humanimal,” so in the area of content knowledge, I expect students to (1) consider something they’ve learned about the major questions driving human/animal discourse, or (2) discuss an insight about issues of representation in a particular work. In the area of self-knowledge, I invite students to surprise me. I remind them that because our course incorporates several student-led projects, they may choose to reflect on realizations they’ve reached either in collaboration with peers or in public speaking roles. However, I also invite students to reach outside of class: perhaps a class conversation strangely found its way into Thanksgiving dinner? If so, what did they learn about themselves while translating a topic from school to family?
The last detail of this assignment is form: I spend the semester coaching literature students in close reading skills and in the writerly moves they can (and must!) use to convey analysis. But in this Final Essay, I want them to write differently. Why? So that they also take a stab at thinking differently.
Because this is not a course in creative writing, they have only two class periods in which to learn, experiment, and practice a small handful of creative techniques of craft. However, even minimal instruction in active scene writing can be eye-opening. I try to be transparent to students about the purpose to formal variation with declarations like this one: “your brain will think differently when you are writing in a formal academic voice – than when you are writing in a spunky, edgy voice – than when you are writing in a dramatic, voluptuous voice.”
The language from the assignment sheet is fairly simple:
In my own writing, moments in which I am compelled to turn something over in my mind are my most generative. These instances of pause lead me to make unexpected connections. Reflection is a space for strange insights to emerge, and for persistent questions to grow all the more slippery. Anecdotes from my own creative writing process come in handy when students feel lost with the assignment, or are getting knotted up trying to figure out what I “want.” Illustrating some of my own exploratory surprises gives them permission to experiment as well.
- Helen Macdonald essay & Backward Outline exercise
Helen Macdonald’s essay, “What Animals Taught Me About Being Human” provides students with a formal model. They read the essay first as literary critics, analyzing the essay’s literary representation of animals by applying tools they’ve honed over the course of the semester.
Students read the essay secondly as writers investigating structure – something with which they have far less experience, and for which I thus provide more guidance. In a Backward Outline exercise, students create a color-codedstructural map of the essay’s components in its margins. They identify “scene” and “reflection” in contrasting colors, describing patterns in the ratio of scene to reflection and in the frequency of each. They also summarize the “nugget of insight” or the “kernel of truth” revealed in each reflective passage. The Final Essay assignment asks students to mimic Macdonald’s structure – that is, to integrate important moments from class or collaboration outside of class, important textual excerpts (since this is a literature course), and reflection from the perspective of the present looking back to meditate on the weight of those turning points.
Following a series of in-class, memory-sparking fastwrites (Lynda Barry’s Kitchen Table exercise described in this conversation is a favorite), students take home a series of six short prompts designed to get them thinking back in lively ways about class experiences.
While the Brainstorm Goulash prepares students to write about specific experiences, the in-class reflection activity is key in preparing them to mimic Macdonald’s mixture of scene and reflection. Students have a series of brief, structured conversations with different partners. The question sequence is designed to open from the easy, most apparent narrative, and reveal another layer of insight.
Students exchange essays in small groups on a Friday and reconvene for discussion the following Monday, guided by Bill Hart-Davidson’s “Describe, Evaluate, Suggest” feedback heuristic. As in a traditional writer’s workshop, they write their group members a feedback letter responding to specific questions I supply ahead of time.
Two Example Student Approaches
One student is polishing an essay bookended by two – very different – trips he took to the zoo, and is honing in on the realization that content from the critical articles we’ve studied is reconfiguring his relationship with his mother. This is an example of an especially personal and vulnerable Final Essay.
One student is polishing an essay that grapples with the ramifications of a single comment made by a classmate, “Marjane Satrapi is an unreliable narrator.” Invested in critiquing that perspective, this student is doubling down on her analysis of The Complete Persepolis and interrogating her own motivations as a journalism major. This is an example of a more argumentative and philosophic Final Essay.
Writing this post has clarified for me a principle of my own pedagogy. Early in the semester, I foster a burst of exploration and experimentation. Then I want students to buckle down: class expectations are strict, consistent, and build on one another – exams I and II are the major benchmarks, here. Then, at the end of the semester, I want students to shake off the formal strictures we’ve used to gain a progression of skills. I want them to return to exploration and experimentation, find unexpected uses for the work they’ve done, and in doing so, teach me how the study of literature fits into a life.